Students and faculty come together to showcase interdisciplinary research and teamwork

(This is a post by VTSuN member Carol Johnson, where she talks about the 4th Annual Interdisciplinary Research Day (IDR Day), held at Virginia Tech on February 27, 2014. Carol is also the President of Iota Delta Rho, which organized this event.)

“Solve ‘wicked’ problems.” “Help the community.” “Learn how to work in interdisciplinary teams.” “Communicate research to a broad, diverse audience.”  Few events on campus are specifically targeted towards bringing students, faculty and administrators from all disciplines together to do these things. The 4th Annual Interdisciplinary Research Day (IDR Day) at Virginia Tech aimed to do just that.

This year, the IDR Day was born out of the combination of two previous events (IDR Symposium and IDR Day) that have been held annually at Virginia Tech since 2011. Members of Iota Delta Rho, the nation’s first interdisciplinary research honor society, organizes these and other events to recognize and promote interdisciplinary research at Virginia Tech and throughout the country.

Keynote speakers at the IDR day

Keynote speakers Dr. Michelle Bennett, Dr. Peter Vikesland and Dr. Ben Knapp

Keynote speaker Dr. Michelle Bennett (National Institutes of Health) kicked off the event with tips on how to work in interdisciplinary teams, which resonated with the broad audience and spurred an interesting discussion. Last year, Dr. Bennett visited Virginia Tech to to talk about the Collaboration and Team Science Field Guide at graduate-level class offered by faculty from the VTSuN and the Water INTERface IGEPs.

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Dr. Benjamin Knapp, Director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) at Virginia Tech and professor in the Computer Science department, shared the many resources available to students and faculty to visualize and interact with complex data, and prototype new design ideas.

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Dr. Peter Vikesland, Director of the VTSuN IGEP, spoke about the importance of interdisciplinary graduate education, and more specifically about the Interdisciplinary Graduate Education Program (IGEP) at Virginia Tech. (Check out the TEDx talks by Dr. Knapp and Dr. Vikesland here and here.)

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Virginia Tech-funded IGEPs were developed to foster interdisciplinary teams that are critical for solving complex, wicked problems such as water safety, obesity, global climate change, and disaster resilience. VT currently supports 14 of these IGEP groups, each of which includes scientists from at least two colleges and three departments, though most are even more diverse that that.

Graduate and undergraduate students also showcased their interdisciplinary research in the poster session. This was a great opportunity to practice speaking to a very broad audience, a skill they learned about during the Communicating Science Workshop that many of them attended a week before IDR Day. Besides the results of their research, the presenters described the process of actually integrating aspects of different disciplines into their research. Through these conversations, the presenters and attendees often gain new ideas for research and collaboration.

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The highlight of IDR Day for many was the roundtable discussions. We saw interdisciplinary collaborations in action as groups of students, faculty and staff developed creative solutions to challenging issues posed by local non-profit organizations. The demographic make-up of the participants was also diverse, particularly by ethnicity, country of origin, and native language.

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Participants at the roundtable – collision of ideas.

The problems submitted by each non-profit were carefully crafted; they were of interest to a general audience, broad enough to engage a wide range of backgrounds but narrow enough for the groups to develop creative ideas in a short amount of time. A representative from each non-profit was also available to provide more information to the groups. Here is an example question, from the non-profit Smart Beginnings of the New River Valley:

“The number and nature of the words directed at young children in their early years varies widely by socioeconomic status, with many more encouragements directed to children in higher socioeconomic households and many more discouraging words directed at children in lower socioeconomic households. This begins creating a vocabulary gap by 18 months old that only increases as children age. These early experiences structure the developing brain in ways that have significant lifelong consequences. How can we bridge this word gap and promote quality, word-rich interactions in families in the NRV?”

So… what did one group come up with as a solution?

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A grocery store hour-long open house of learning. The idea was to put learning spaces where people go regularly. Imagine… you could drop your child off for an hour at this learning space, while you went shopping. Well no, actually for this to work both kids and parents should participate together, to increase the chance of the positive interactions spilling into other aspects of life. Adding community spaces to grocery stores… sounds like an innovative idea!

tweets_ray_2Other participating non-profit organizations included the New River Valley HOME ConsortiumSmart Beginnings of the New River ValleyBlacksburg Farmer’s MarketDrop-In Resource Center, and Valley Interfaith Child Care Center. VT-Engage coordinated their involvement in IDR Day.

The IDR Day 2014 was a great success – we shared, connected, engaged, discussed, argued, laughed, tweeted… and at the same time, tackled real-world problems. Iota Delta Rho looks forward to providing this unique experience again next year!

For more participant impressions, check out #IDRDay2014 on Twitter!

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